An Open Letter to Ms. Smriti Irani
Dear Ms. Irani,
Thanks to your stunning performance, we, many faculty members from the University of Hyderabad, are compelled to do what we should have done in the last one month or so, but could not bring ourselves to – write, write about Rohith, write about our other students, write about the state of academics, write about ourselves and write about society at large. Our first acknowledgement to this therefore goes to you for revealing yourself and for bringing us back from grief, from reflection, from teaching and from various other mundane things we do as part of our job.
As we watched you in disbelief on our TV screens on 24th February 2016, you in a voice choked with emotion, again and again referred to the "child" whose death has been used as a political weapon. We were left bewildered.
At what precise point, Madam Minister, did this sinister, anti-national, casteist, Dalit student of the University of Hyderabad transform into a child for you? Definitely, not in those five rejoinders from MHRD between 03-09-2015 and 19-11- 2015 with the subject line "anti-national activities in Hyderabad Central University Campus"? Definitely, not when you chose to overlook and endorse what can only be read as extraordinarily aggressive and unfounded allegations by a minister in your own government, Mr. Bandaru Dattatreya? Ms. Irani, your constant reference to him as a child is nothing but a patronizing attempt to dehumanize his reality. It is also deeply disrespectful to Rohit's mother whose child he actually is - because she knows how ironic your appropriation of him is, considering your culpability in his death.
Only after more than a month of his death Rohith becomes a 'child' for you “whose death was used as a political weapon.” A political weapon by whom, honourable Minister? By the other four students who were expelled with him and who spent those cold nights out in the makeshift velivada, with nothing but each other for company and succour? By the other students and friends who stood by him? Because you definitely seem to imply that when you say this child could possibly have been revived and yet his body was hidden and no doctor or police was allowed near him.
By now incontrovertible facts have emerged that belie this.
However, we would like to go beyond those facts and appeal to your heart. You were not there that night Respected Minister. You did not see the grief or the shock, nor were you there to feel the despair. How could you even begin to fathom how desperate students were when they called faculty members and medical doctor of the University's Health Centre as soon as Rohith's body was found hanging by students and security officials? As Dr. Rajyasree, Medical officer has stated, she rushed to the hostel at 7.30 pm and declared Rohith dead at 7.40 pm, all recorded in his case sheet on that fateful night of 17-01-2016. The police arrived at the scene immediately after this. Iraniji, it is beyond our simple comprehension to understand how you with your meticulous preparation evident in the Loksabha speech ignored these crucial medical documents / preliminary evidences. This also includes the post mortem report that declares Rohith was dead at least 18-24 hours before the body was examined the subsequent day. From all the medical and post mortem reports, statements by friends, faculty, and university officials – it is clear that Rohith's body was found hours after he hung himself.
Not only are your claims factually incorrect but they point to an utter lack of respect and sensitivity for the grieving family, friends, and students. You are clearly disconnected from the heart breaking grief of his friends palpable to anyone present that night or the accompanying anger knowing the injustice that led to this tragedy. Does it befit our honourable minister to implicate these very grieving people in the death of their beloved friend?
Respected Minister, you have also repeatedly claimed that the committee which suspended Rohith Vemula and four other Dalit students was not constituted by your government, but by the UPA regime. You have also emphasised that there indeed was a Dalit faculty member in that committee.
We are astounded that you can so smoothly pass on the responsibility for this tragedy to someone else. Being at the helm of MHRD, we are sure you must know that the Executive Council's Sub-Committee that took the fatal decision to suspend the Dalit students from hostels and other common spaces, was expressly constituted by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Appa Rao, following five rejoinders from your ministry goading the University to take action against the Dalit students.
We may also point out that the two member committee constituted by the MHRD itself points out a curious anomaly -- the EC and its sub-committee is the very same body that recommends and ratifies – this simply cannot be.
Just in case your busy schedule has not allowed your attention to the following, permit us to point out further contradictions:
That this subcommittee was composed of all upper caste members except for one. We fail to understand how this one member is expected to overrule the will of five.
Most importantly, Prof. Prakash Babu, the sole Dalit member, was co-opted as the Dean, Students' Welfare and NOT as an SC/ST representative. Kindly refer to the constitution of the EC sub-committee in its minutes of meeting dated 24-11-2015.
That the EC sub-committee did not hear out the key stake holders or consider the counter-affidavit filed by the Commissioner of Police on 3rd October 2015 and simply concurred with the much contested Proctorial Board’s decision is matter for another enquiry.
Now let us come to the punishment itself. Let us think of the lives and struggles of the five boys who were suspended—four of them being sons of agricultural labourers and one without both parents. For them, suspension from hostel meant denial of food and shelter. Add to that, denial of right to access common spaces effectively amounted to social boycott in caste terms. Students who had surmounted unimaginable obstacles to reach the University were pushed back right into the velivada, the “untouchable” fringes of the village. Do you not believe that the administration should have reached out at least when Rohith wrote that 18th December 2015 letter asking the VC to provide Dalit students “sodium azide and a nice rope” at the time of admission itself? Ms. Irani, for all practical purposes, it was a cry for help. This was an opportunity for us to help this ‘child’ and we lost that opportunity. And, we have never heard you quote from this letter that was acknowledged as received by the VC’s office.
For a despondent, beleaguered Rohith, hounded and ignored by the powers that be, death was probably the only way to freedom and the limitless wonder and beauty of the universe that so moved him! Perhaps it was the only way out for someone as conscientious, brilliant, and reflective as Rohith was. This was Rohith’s assertion of dignity, a dignity that was not allowed to him or his friends in their lives. Their lives, in the words of Gopal Guru, mirrored social death, smeared with indignities of caste. To say that his ‘suicide note’ of 17-01-2016 does not name or implicate anyone amounts to gross opportunism and abandonment of moral responsibility.
Permit us to remind you dear minister that the VC did not think / feel it worthwhile enough to meet the grieving students on that fateful night. We are reminded ad nauseam of the threat that students posed to him and continue to pose to him. Students, who already had lost a dear friend, were accused by ABVP of violence, and this is important – students who throughout their struggle since those intense first days following Rohith’s death until now – have maintained their poise, their maturity through all their struggles and protests, have never resorted to violence. Could the Vice Chancellor of the University not meet and console them in that most vulnerable, heart breaking moment? Even when nearly 300 teachers requested the VC to come and assured him of a space to meet students along with them, the VC’s sense of authority prevailed over his sense of duty and responsibility. This was a defining moment Ms. Irani, when the VC could have regained his moral stature and humanity in the eyes of the students. He clearly let history slip through of his fingers.
Rohith is not there with us anymore. His four friends suspended along with him are, his larger group of friends in this University and growing group of friends across the country are. What we expect from you is very minimal. Do not turn this into a fight against students who have nothing to rely upon, no power – political or social, no connections, no money, not even a home. Please understand this -- the minority status you love to claim for yourself cannot in any way be equated with the state of disprivilege and dispossession that many of these students battle on a daily basis. All our students have is the hope of a future which education can possibly bring -- to quote Rohith “from shadows to the stars” Do not blight their hopes, their dreams. Help us ensure each one of us is sensitive to cater to their needs inside classrooms, in labs, in hostels, outside, everywhere. As teachers, as ministers we have much more to offer – truth, equality, justice, hope, and inspiration. Not melodrama.
The Prime Minister has extoled your speech tweeting “Satyameva Jayathe”. Whose Truth? We ask.
SC/ST Teachers’ Forum &
Concerned Faculty, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.
"Only when the last tree has died, and the last river poisoned, will we realize that we cannot eat money."